Singapore's Olympians: Yu Mengyu

Olympics: The world is now Yu Mengyu's stage when it comes to table tennis

Some started in a dingy shooting range, others honed their badminton skills at a void deck. The common goal? The Olympics. This, the first of seven daily profiles, shows how far some of Singapore's 2016 Olympians have come, starting with table tennis' Yu Mengyu.

For every minute on stage, there is 10 years of labour off stage. Yu Mengyu knows this Chinese adage well because she has lived it.

A decade ago, the paddler came to Singapore as a 17-year-old as she had talent but no stage for it. In adopting a new home, she got to stand in arenas.

But she has yet to stand among the best.

 

There are honour rolls that celebrate the feats in a sport that enjoys unparalleled success in Singapore, only none mention her name; pictures that capture this country's greatest table tennis triumphs, only her face is absent from them.

 

Not because Yu, 26, is a second-rate player. But there were always others who were first choice - something she recognised and accepted.

  • TABLE TENNIS

  • FIRST OLYMPICS

    Jing Junhong (1996, singles, round of 16)

    BEST PERFORMANCE

    • 1 silver (2008)

    • 2 bronzes (2012)

    A HISTORY

    • 2000: Unseeded Jing Junhong reached the semi-finals, but was beaten by then-world No. 2 Li Ju. She also lost the bronze play-off to Chinese Taipei's Chen Jing.

    • 2004: Heartbreak again when Li Jiawei lost the semi-final to North Korean Kim Hyang Mi after leading 3-1, before another seven-game loss to South Korean Kim Kyung Ah in the bronze play-off. • 2008: Finally, the women's team won silver, which broke a 48-year medal drought.

    • 2012: A team bronze, before Feng Tianwei overcame the odds to win a singles bronze.

    • The team are gunning for at least one medal this time.

    TEAM SINGAPORE

    Men

    • Gao Ning (singles)

    • Chen Feng (singles)

    Women

    • Feng Tianwei (singles, team)

    • Yu Mengyu (singles, team)

    • Zhou Yihan (team)

    WHEN THEY COMPETE

    Aug 6-17

She said: "There was a gap, in technique and experience, between me and the players more senior than me. I understood why others were picked ahead of me."

  • MY SPECIAL PLACE: CHANGI AIRPORT

  • 819643

    POSTAL CODE

    For someone used to the grey and dull skies of her native Liaoning province, Singapore's greenery and blue skies come as a stark contrast.

    It is why the sights after she first stepped out of Changi Airport when she came to Singapore in 2006 have had a lasting impression on Yu Mengyu.

    She said: "I was quite happy to fly the coop then and get a playing opportunity elsewhere. When I left the airport, it struck me that everything was different and beautiful. There was no fear then."

Singapore's table tennis thriller - a sensational tale of an unlikely world title and three Olympic medals so far - was largely scripted by Li Jiawei, Wang Yuegu and Feng Tianwei. Yu was the team player who had no part in the heroics.

For years, she saw no problem with it, nor did she dare to dream bigger, for to do so was to ask for more than she could have received if she had remained in China.

Said the Liaoning native: "Competing is a privilege reserved for only the best in China. Before I came to Singapore, I couldn't take part in professional tournaments or major Games. My dreams felt impossible.

"I got to play on the international circuit after coming here, and I was just focused on doing that well."

But watching her team-mates feature on one big stage after another stirred Yu's hunger. The accidental professional paddler, who took up the sport because her parents felt their scrawny daughter needed to get fitter, was soon driven by her own aspirations.

It was the team semi-finals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics - the win that guaranteed Singapore's first Olympic medal in 48 years - that lit the flame in Yu. Her team-mates were punching victorious fists in the air inside the Peking University Gymnasium. She was sitting in front of a television in Singapore.

From then on, Yu set out to make the Olympic stage herself. But she could not foresee what it would take to get there, or how long she would have to wait in the wings for her debut on sport's grandest stage.

She said: "When you're young and naive, everything to you is wonderful. You don't think about the pressure in training, the burden to produce results, and the lows that are guaranteed in an athletic career.

"I did feel down when I was on the bench watching others play the big events. There's this rush to just go up and be the one playing."

It helped that despite a slender frame, Yu has never been one to go down without a fight. Even as a child, she could not stand losing. Winning was always the only acceptable outcome.

She said: "I'm not the most tenacious player, but I'm very persistent when it comes to what I want.

"I guess that was what helped me hang on for so long. The Olympics was a dream not yet fulfilled. So no matter the setback, I'd imagine what it would feel like to be at the Olympics, and all the grind would feel worth it."

A decade after leaving the grey skies of Liaoning for - quite literally - greener pastures in Singapore, Yu is finally getting her time on the most coveted stage of all.

In her 10-year journey, there has been sweetness in victory, like her 2012 win over world No. 1 Liu Shiwen. But she will tell you those are short-lived, no matter who you beat. What lingers longer, and hits harder, is the sorrow in defeat. And pain, when your body is in mutiny.

Said Yu, who will turn 27 on Aug 18 in Rio: "It's like a test of your will, like you're a piece of metal put through the fire to be refined.

"It's been a constant giving of myself, like everything I've been through these 10 years - just so I can present the best version of myself as an athlete for this moment.

"Maybe I needed to be put through the grind so that everything would come together for this one moment. Maybe this is the heavens' reward to me for everything I've been put through, I've put myself through and endured."

The patient pupil, the uncomplaining understudy, has bided her time behind the curtains for a decade.

Now the stage is hers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 24, 2016, with the headline 'The world is now her stage'. Print Edition | Subscribe